Sometimes being near the bottom is the best place to be.
The Bears have nothing to lose going in ranked nine out of 12 to this weekend’s NCAA championships in Norman, Oklahoma. Cal men’s gymnastics tends to crumble, or at least falter, at high-pressure meets, but with virtually nowhere to go but up, fans might see the team’s scores fly as high as its tricks this weekend.
The Bears are looking to qualify for the championship finals. In order to do so, the team will need to claw past No. 5 Illinois and No. 8 Penn State to join No. 1 Stanford and No. 4 Nebraska, which are almost guaranteed to make the cut. Head coach JT Okada, along with team captains and seniors Yu-Chen Lee and Caleb Rickard, are hopeful. With all of the teams finally competing on the same playing field, the blue and gold plans to pull out all of the stops.
Gymnastics is a complicated and sometimes subjective sport, leaving room for natural biases among different judging panels across the United States. In the past, this has resulted in Cal slightly moving up the national rankings after its performance at championships.
“The final rankings are what I’m really interested in seeing,” Okada said. “We might be able to surprise some people.”
In order to give them their best chance, Okada plans to go all in by giving two to three gymnasts the opportunity to compete all-around and adding back in some of the more difficult skills the team had put to rest for previous competitions. Okada added that in terms of lineups, however, fans won’t see more than a few tweaks to those who competed at the MPSF championships.
Among those who will likely get to show off newer difficulties in their routines is sophomore Chris Scales, who might compete an upgraded routine on rings, and senior Kyle Abe, who will be performing a harder dismount on rings. Abe will attempt a triple backflip, which Okada hopes will pay off — while Abe has stuck the landing in the gyms, he’s yet to be able to do it in competition.
Okada is also relying on the guys competing on pommel horse to “let it fly” and finally nail the more difficult routines they’ve been struggling to hit.
The question for the blue and gold always seems to be whether they can master their nerves at competition. Considering the stakes are higher at championships and this is one of the last chances for many seniors to compete, this might prove too difficult.
“I tend to stress over competitions and get really nervous before, but I tend to do well when I’m just having fun and enjoying what I’m doing,” Lee said. “As long as I do that it will loosen me up and I’ll be able to compete like how I’ve been practicing and that’s all I can ask for.”
For Rickard, the NCAA championships are the end of a long journey. He hopes to end his time competing for Cal as a team finalist along with the men he’s grown with and helped mentor.
Along with two other Bears, Rickard qualified as an individual finalist for vault at last year’s championships, and scored within the top eight in the country. This year, he hopes to have a repeat performance and add parallel bars as well as high bar to his roster.
“It’s exciting and bittersweet, like most meets this year have been for me,” soon-to-be graduate Rickard said. “My biggest goal is to end this season with no regrets, just knowing that I left it all out there, did everything I could to contribute to the team.”
This is the Bears’ last chance this semester to prove that they can roar just as loud in competition as they do in practice. Fans can only hope that the team shakes off its jitters and shows that blue and gold are winning colors.